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Tiwi Islands trip

The Probus Club of Darwin recently embarked on a wonderful trip to the Tiwi Islands.


The tagline from the well-known 1993 Northern Territory Tourism campaign featuring Daryl Somers, “You’ll Never Never Know if You Never Never Go” certainly still fits the Tiwi Islands.

Nestled to the south of the Timor Sea, some 80km north of Darwin, the Tiwis, as they are affectionately called, are made up of two islands, Bathurst and Melville. While devotees of Australian Rules Football may be very familiar with the Tiwi Islands as they have delivered some of the finest players to the AFL and VFL, little else is known about this hidden gem.

On 24-25 June, a group of Probians from the Darwin Probus Club enjoyed a day of culture, history and art on the Tiwi by Design tour.

After boarding the SeaLink ferry, all settled down for the two-and-a-half-hour journey to the islands, entertaining one another with their understanding of the different Darwin panoramas. Members passed by several large ships, including two LNG carriers, awaiting their turn to dock, as required under COVID-19 protocols.  

Members were greeted on our arrival by their Tiwi Tour Guide and escorted to the Tiwi Art Centre. There they took part in a smoking ceremony with a group of the Tiwi elders. They were assured the smoking would energise them for the day ahead. The hosts then entertained members, performing dances honouring their Crocodile, Shark and Horse totems.

After a morning tea of damper and tea and coffee and free time to look around the wide range of art, sculpture and fabric on display and for sale, members moved to the Museum.  There the guide explained the stories of some of the Tiwi ceremonies including the Kulama (yam) ceremony, a celebration of life, and the Pukamani, a Tiwi burial ceremony.

Then it was time for more modern Tiwi history. All watched a caricature-type film highlighting the role the Islands played in World War II. Although not well-known elsewhere, most people living in Darwin know of Father John McGrath’s radio message from the Radio Shack on Bathurst Island to the Amalgamated Wireless Radio Station in Darwin on 19 February 1942, his futile attempt to warn Darwin of a large formation of aircraft bearing down on the town. This was the first and largest of a multitude of Japanese air raids on Darwin in 1942, now collectively known and commemorated annually as The Bombing of Darwin.

Lesser-known events in the film were the crash landing of a Japanese plane on Melville Island and the capture of its pilot by a Tiwi man and the Islanders’ role in rescuing and providing medical aid to sailors from ships sunk by Japanese bombers in the waters off the Tiwi Islands.

The next treat was the array of Tiwi-decorated sacred objects in the Catholic Church, which was built on the islands in the 1930s. They also heard about Father Gsell, the Catholic Priest who established the Catholic Mission in 1911. He is known as the priest who “bought” himself 150 young Tiwi wives. These purchases were designed to rescue young Tiwi women from their arranged marriages to old men.

By this time everyone was ready. The walk back to the Art Centre for lunch took them past the Radio Shack from where Father McGrath’s famous radio message was sent and the propeller of the ZERO fighter plane shot down in 1942.

The final treat of the day involved members producing their own Tiwi-design screen print works of art. All left with beautiful Tiwi prints on tea towels or T-shirts of their very own making. Well, almost of their own making – the work was expertly guided by the Tiwi hosts who helped members select and mix the colours, hold and manipulate the screen print paddle and set the works of art so they could carry them home unspoiled.

It was a tired bunch of Darwin Club Probians who joined other visitors on the ferry ride home. All agreed that the Tiwi by Design trip was a very enjoyable and memorable tour.